Young Adult Books

 We’re all familiar with children’s books and adult fiction, but ‘young adult’ is a category to which I hadn’t given much thought.  But recently, while on holiday inSicily, I stopped into a book shop in Capo d’Orlando to look for an English novel by a good writer.  There are about four book shops in Capo d’Orlando, but I knew that the shop in the main square carried a few English books (about 25) and some German books, as well (about 10).  If that this represents much less than 1% of their stock surprises you, I have to say that less than 1% of the population of Capo d’Orlando speak any English!

I had a browse through the English language books, and one ‘from the bestselling author’ Carlos Ruiz Zafon caught my eye.  The brief write-up on the author said that “Carlos Ruiz Zafon is the author of six novels, including the international phenomenon The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game.  His work is published in more than forty languages and has been honoured with numerous international awards.  He divides his time betweenBarcelona,Spain andLos Angeles,California.”

The novel I bought was The Midnight Palace – originally published in Spain as a young adult novel, “The Midnight Palace is a haunting story of a secret society and a labyrinthine railway station with a dark past.”

“Murders most foul, chilling crimes and dark deeds” says Vogue.

The story begins inCalcutta,Indiain 1916 when twin orphaned babies, a boy and a girl, are carried to safety by a police officer who is then murdered.  The story continues in 1932 when the orphans have turned sixteen and are released from their orphanages.  Their mission, together with five other released orphans (four boys and a girl) is to find out who killed the parents of the twins.  Sound interesting?  I thought so, and as I read through it, I began to discover what seemed to be some of the elements making up best-selling young adult fiction:

  • The setting should be somewhat extraordinary as to place and time:Calcutta, 1932
  • The main characters should be adolescents: in this case 16 years old
  • Places should be intriguing: in this case a huge old railway station destroyed in a fire and an old tumbledown castle.
  • There should be some major wrongs that need to be put right: lots of murders
  • Plenty of mystery is a good addition, particularly if it takes all the deductive skills of the young orphans to solve it, with very little adult help.

Maybe I’ve become to unimaginative, and too literal in my thinking, but I got two thirds of the way through the book and lost interest.  There was too much in the story that defied credibility:

  • A villain who’s motives and plans are extremely complex
  • A villain who shoots fire from his fingers
  • Lots of supernatural powers
  • A burning, runaway train that keeps running away
  • One person taking over the soul of another
  • And an orphan boy who owns a watch inCalcuttain 1932

I guess to really enjoy this novel, one has to suspend disbelief.

The research I have done suggests that the ‘young adult’ category covers age 12 through 18.  It must be quite difficult to cover this age range with any one novel.  I suspect that writers who specialise in young adult fiction cater to a narrower age group.

There is one piece of young adult fiction that I remember well from my high school days, and that is The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger.  It was written in 1951 as an adult novel but has become an adolescent favourite, with 65 million copies sold, in almost all of the major languages.  I read it when I was 16 or 17 when it was required reading in my English class.

The Catcher in the Rye relies on a different set of themes that The Midnight Palace to capture the attention of adolescent readers. 

Briefly, it is a story told in the first person by Holden Caulfield, a 17 year old boy who is attending a military academy inPennsylvania.  He is kicked out of school and spends several days inNew York Cityduring which time he experiments in various ways and tries to understand himself.  Holden Caulfield has become an icon of teenage rebellion.  The novel deals with a number of themes which are important to Holden’s age group: identity, connection, sexuality, alienation and belonging, but I believe that this is a novel that anyone from the age of 15 onwards would find interesting and thought-provoking.

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